Just the most marvellous book about writing!

28 Jul

There are so many to choose from, but let me suggest that teachers, senior students, and anyone interested in writing — even (especially?) bloggers — ought not to walk past Mark Tredinnick’s The Little Red Writing Book (Sydney, UNSW Press, 2006) without buying it. You will find page after page of sound advice and common sense, delivered with freshness and always with good humour, and plenty of exercises, none of them stodgy. But it is never shallow. Clearly much thought, reading and practice have gone into its making. Novelist and creative writing teacher Nicholas Jose says: “This is a book for every writer’s backpack.” I agree.

Writing is the art of making an utterance perfectly natural through the perfectly unnatural process of making every word and phrase again and again, cutting here and adding there, until it is just so. It is contrived spontaneity. What a writer wants is something just like speech only more compressed, more melodic,more economical, more balanced, more precise.

And this:

Every sentence names something and says something about it. This is the secret life of the sentence — the short story it tells. If that story is clearly told, the sentence will work; if not, it will not.

And finally this:

Why is it so hard to convince ourselves that writing is just a kind of talking on paper? I think it’s because we get told the opposite so early and so often. We learn, at home, on our way through school, and then at work, that writing is supposed to be different from speaking — less voiced, less plain, more impersonal, more circumspect, more polysyllabic, smarter, more proper all round. We get drummed out of us the one piece of wisdom that would help us all write better.

This all began the day someone told you to use the passive voice when expressing conclusions in an essay. When they told you never to write ‘I’ in your history and science papers — in any papers. That day happened the other week to my daughter. It’s the day you learn that you don’t belong anymore in your writing. The day when it all starts going wrong. Remember that day?

What they were trying to teach you was the virtue of disinterested inquiry and dispassionate expression. But they may not have made that clear.

Linguists — indeed my lecturers in the Grad Cert TESOL at UTS in 1998 — will cavil at much of that. And indeed it is true there is such a thing as a speech -writing continuum, there are differences, and there are all kinds of register variations between everyday speech and writing for specific purposes in particular contexts and communities of discourse. ESL teachers especially must often highlight such matters. Yet I do think Tredinnick is right too, even if he really is addressing native speakers or fluent and confident second language learners. Nonetheless, it is where we start going wrong when we overvalue nominalisation or the passive in academic writing, for example, or go to ridiculous lengths to avoid the word “I”.

What do you think?

Meantime get the book. There is much good advice on particular writing issues whether in “creative writing” or in more transactional tasks such as essays and reports.


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3 responses to “Just the most marvellous book about writing!

  1. Cliff Burns

    July 29, 2007 at 2:49 am

    Ann Lamott has written a lovely writing text called BIRD BY BIRD.
    Highly recommended for student scribblers and up-and-comers.

  2. ninglun

    July 29, 2007 at 9:11 am

    Thanks, Cliff, for that suggestion.

    Cliff Burns is a Canadian writer.

    David LaMotte (no relation), a songwriter, included Bird by Bird in a list of good books on writing appended to a post called Thoughts for Aspiring Songwriters. He writes:

    Though no relation, she is among my favorite writers. Chock full of her trademark neurotic, brave and hysterical vulnerability, Bird by Bird is disarming and liberating as well as instructive. She’s brilliant and hilarious and profoundly human. Even if you don’t aspire to writing of any kind, this is a good read. If you do have such aspirations it’s a must. The funny thing about this book is that there’s some chance it will offend people who offend each other. i.e. She speaks freely about her Christianity in writing about her life and work, and that will turn some people off. On the other hand, she’s perfectly willing to use any and all of the words the English language offers to tell a story or make a point, so folks who are offended by strong language will be put off.

  3. Bruce

    October 4, 2007 at 11:55 am

    I think I’ll keep an eye out for it at Borders.

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